Marxism: Virtues & Problems
By Michael Albert | July 6, 2002
How do we decide whether to employ Marxism? Do its concepts highlight what's most important and leave out what's peripheral? Do they reveal the roots of oppression? Do they conceive liberating relationships? Do they effectively inform activist intervention?
Marxism's virtues include that it attunes us to important economics, explains ownership relations and profit-seeking, reveals many horrible effects of markets, and highlights class dynamics. But for this essay, I want to focus not on Marxism's virtues, but its problems.
First, Marxism misorients us. Marxist dialectics are an overly obscure methodological reminder to think holistically and historically that often, however, drain creativity and range of perception. When "real existing people" utilize historical materialism's concepts they generally systematically under-value and misunderstand social relations of gender, political, cultural, and ecological origin and import. Marxism as used by real practitioners, that is, tends to exaggerate the centrality of economics, and gives insufficient attention to gender, race, polity, and the environment. To overcome this weakness would require a twofold alteration of how most Marxists construct and utilize their worldview. They would need to admit:
1. That Marxism mainly conceptualizes economics, and
2. That conceptualizations of the other mentioned realms offer equally central insights and moreover that influences from other domains can centrally contour economic relations, just as vice versa.
That is, Marxists would need to jettison their base/superstructure conceptualization and instead highlight that gender, race, and political dynamics can impact economics just as powerfully as vice versa. Marxism would need to recognize both directions of causality, not exclusively or even primarily only causality from economics to the rest of society, and would have to refine many of its concepts accordingly. This type critique has in the past propelled feminists to create socialist feminism (to try to merge insights from gender-focused and class-focused analysis) and has led also to variants of anarcho-marxism, Marxist nationalism, and so on regarding other conceptual combinations, right up to frameworks that centrally address economics, polity, culture, and kinship all on a par.
But the above is not the problem of Marxism that I wish to feature in this discussion. Indeed, suppose most Marxists have already or will soon achieve the above enrichment and diversification of their concepts, as some certainly have. Would I be satisfied with such a renovated Marxism?
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I'd be happy about it, yes, but no, I wouldn't be satisfied with it, because I think Marxism has a second problem, more damning and intractable. That is, Marxism gets the economy wrong.
On the one hand, in orthodox variants, and in almost all its texts, the Labor Theory of Value misunderstands the determination of wages, prices, and profits in capitalist economies and turns activists' thoughts away from seeing how the dynamics of the workplace and market are largely functions of bargaining power and social control, categories that the labor theory of value largely ignores. Likewise, orthodox Marxist crisis theory, in all its variants, distorts understanding of capitalist economies and anti-capitalist prospects by often seeing intrinsic collapse where no such prospect exists and by often orienting activists away from the importance of their own organizing as a far more promising basis for change. But these ills too, one can imagine Marxists transcending, as indeed many have. So let's assume these all away, as well.
Far more important than these failures, what I want to focus on is that in virtually every variant of Marxism, Marxist class theory literally denies the existence of what I call the coordinator (professional-managerial or technocratic) class and undercounts its antagonisms with the working class as well as with capital. This particular failing has long obstructed class analysis of the old Soviet, Eastern European, and Third World non-capitalist economies, and of capitalism itself.
Marxism rightly reveals that class differences can arise from differences in ownership relations. Capitalists own means of production. Workers own only their labor power which they sell for a wage. The capitalist pursues profit by trying to extract as much work as possible at the least expenditure possible. The worker tries to expand wages, improve conditions, and work as short and little as possible. Class struggle.
So what's the problem? The Marxist picture certainly rings plenty true, as far as it goes, but why should only property relations generate class difference? Why can't other social relations of work and economic life divide actors into critically important opposed groups with different circumstances, motives, and means?
The answer is that they can. Some waged employees monopolize empowering conditions and tasks and have considerable say over their own work situations and those of other workers below. Other waged employees endure only disempowering conditions and tasks and have virtually no say over their own or anyone else's conditions. The former try to maintain their monopoly on empowering circumstances and greater income while ruling over the latter. Class struggle.
Within capitalism, in this view we have not only capitalists and workers, but, in between, there is a coordinator class of empowered actors who defend their advantages against workers below and who struggle to enlarge their bargaining power against owners above. But even more, this coordinator class can actually become the ruling class of a new economy with capitalists removed and with workers still subordinate. That is, Marxism obscures the existence of a class which not only contends with capitalists and workers within capitalism, but which can become ruler of a new economy, aptly called, I think, coordinatorism.
Finally, the really damning point is that this new economy that I call coordinatorism, is familiar. It has public or state ownership of productive assets and corporate divisions of labor. It remunerates power and/or output. It utilizes central planning and/or markets for allocation. It is typically called by its advocates market socialism or centrally planned socialism. It is celebrated as the goal of struggle in every Marxist text that offers a serious economic vision. It has been adopted by every Marxist party that has ever redefined a society's economic relations. It is prevalent, that is, yet it is barely conceptualized at all.
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Regarding visions of desirable societies, it turns out, therefore, that Marxism is particularly counter-productive in a few ways. First there is Marxism's general taboo against "utopian" speculation. Second, Marxism tends to presume that if economic relations are desirable other social relations will fall into place. Third, Marxism confuses what constitutes an equitable distribution of income. "From each according to ability to each according to need" is utopian and curtails needed information transfer and has in any event never been more than rhetoric for empowered Marxists and their alternative "from each according to work and to each according to contribution to the social product" is not a morally worthy maxim because it would reward productivity, including genetic endowment and differential tools and conditions. And fourth and most damning, in practice and in its substantive prescriptions (though not always it rhetorical entreaties), Marxism approves hierarchical relations of production and command planning or markets as means of allocation.
In other words, the heart of the problem that makes me reject Marxism and feel that it ought to have declining relevance among serious leftists seeking a better new economy (though of course not rejecting all Marxist insights) is that due to its underlying concepts and however innocently for a great many Marxist activists, Marxism's economic goals amount to advocating a coordinator mode of production that elevates administrators, intellectual workers, planners, etc., to ruling status. Marxism uses the label socialism for this goal, of course, but in my view this is only to appeal to workers and other people of good will. Marxism does not in fact structurally implement socialist ideals when it is in position to affect societal outcomes, nor does it offer a vision that does so in any substantive presentations. The situation is analogous, Marx himself would surely point out, to how bourgeois movements use the label democratic to rally support from diverse sectors, but do not structurally implement truly democratic ideals.
Finally, Leninism is a natural outgrowth of Marxism when employed by people in capitalist societies, and Marxism Leninism, far from being the "theory and strategy for the working class, is, instead, due to its focus, concepts, values, goals, organizational and tactical commitments, the theory and strategy of the coordinator class not the working class. It employs coordinator class organizational and decision making logic and structure, and seeks coordinator class dominating economic aims.
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It is generally not very effective to rail against an intellectual framework of long standing by adopting a purely critical stance. Something positive must be offered. So I should say that in place of the economic inadequacies of Marxism for greater relevance to our aspirations I think we should utilize a richer conceptual framework emphasizing the broader social relations of production, all the material, human, and social inputs and outputs of economic activity, the social and psychological as well as material dimensions of class division, and particularly the impact of corporate divisions of labor and market and centrally planned allocation on class hierarchy in capitalism and also in coordinatorism. Having done all that, in addition to of course retaining the lasting insights of Marxism and for that matter all prior frameworks, I think we will reject existent and past market and centrally planned models of a better economy and gravitate instead toward new structures. For myself, I call the new economic goal I favor participatory economics including council self management, remuneration for effort and sacrifice (and for need for those who can't work), balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.
If this model (worked out in full in many works and discussed in detail at www.parecon.org) is worthy and desirable, and if it should replace what has been called socialism (but has actually been coordinatorism) as the goal of movements seeking economic justice and equity, then I think rejecting Marxism and Leninism as ideologies to guide us should be done not simply due to finding fault with various aspects of each, but due to having a preferred alternative to utilize in their place.
Council self management is what the Bolsheviks destroyed, more or less, in the Soviet Union. Remuneration for effort and sacrifice counters rewarding power or output, the typical approach of "socialist" models. Balanced job complexes replaces corporate workplace organization to eliminate the workplace basis for coordinator rule, present in all actual Marxist economies and substantive accounts of aims. Participatory planning replaces markets and or central planning, also present in virtually all Marxist program and practice, to remove the allocational basis for coordinator rule. Together these features propel solidarity, equity, diversity, and self-management rather than stifling and trampling each. In some sense it might be nice to claim that Marxists have been confused all this time, advocating a mistaken set of institutions that doesn't, in fact, spring from the logic of their conceptual framework, but it would be a bit disingenuous, it seems to me. Coordinatorism does have roots in various Marxist and particularly Leninist concepts and commitments, which is why these latter need to be transcended and jettisoned.
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Marx taught us to look at ideologies or conceptual frameworks, and to ask of them, who do they serve? What are they suited for? What do they include, and what do they exclude, and will their inclusions and exclusions make them suitable or unsuitable for us? Marx was no one's fool and these are very insightful instructions. Applied to Marxism, however, they reveal that the framework leaves out important economic relations virtually all to the benefit of the coordinator class in its agenda to overcome capitalism and install itself into ruling status. We shouldn't only tinker with and otherwise refine Marxism, just as we shouldn't only tinker with and otherwise refine bourgeois economics. These are frameworks bent to serve interests that we oppose. They have insights we can borrow, especially Marxism, of course. But as to the overall conceptual package -- following Marx's advice, we have to transcend that.
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Michael Albert currently works at Z Magazine and ZNet (www.zmag.org) and has authored many books bearing on issues of social theory, analysis, and vision.